Sunday, March 18, 2012

All wet

Matty, Keith and I were sitting in the lobby bar of the Hilton Hotel across the street from the Austin Convention Center. It was late afternoon, a heavy and persistent rain was keeping the crowds indoors, and so the joint was jam-packed. The din was familiar to anyone who had ever attended an international trade show or convention: the mouth music of a thousand people on the make. Someone was supposed to be waiting tables, but the process had broken down, so I elbowed my way to the bar to get the three of us something to drink. There were two bartenders there flailing away -- a tall unsmiling guy in black jeans and a black shirt who moved like a stoned zombie and a petite blonde who couldn't get the touch screen ordering system to work properly. She kept talking to it but it didn't do any good. It was out of order. A large pale female in her early thirties sidled up next to me. "I've come to sell my screenplay," she said in a posh English accent. "I'm supposed to meet someone at four but I don't know how I'll find him in this crowd." It was near four thirty. I congratulated her on having made it as far as she had. She tried to say something in return but it was too loud in there to make out actual words or phrases so we just nodded and grinned at each other like a pair of effin primates. It was something of a relief not to have to attempt a real conversation. Besides, we were getting to used to sussing out people's motives by studying their facial expressions. The zombie finally took my order. When he brought the drinks -- two red wines for Matty and me, a gin and tonic for Keith -- I bid adieu to the British screenwriter and squeezed through the throng back to our corner table. We were near an electrical outlet: a prized location at a conference during which everyone needed to regularly recharge their batteries. We toasted our good fortune and drank. Matty said, "Remember when we were just starting in publishing?" That was a long time ago, when Waldenbooks and B. Dalton were the retailers to be reckoned with. He jerked his head in the direction of the bar. "This reminds me of BEA back then. The buzz. The feeling that anything is possible. When we were young just like these guys." Matty's a geezer like me. I thought to myself, you're not far off the mark, cuz, even if Book Expo was called the ABA Convention back then, and there were a helluva lot fewer women and virtually no foreigners attending. I remember standing around with a bunch of stiff males in navy blazers who liked closing a sale a lot more than they liked literature. For misfits like Matty and me, corporate publishing was a great gig until the gambling got out of hand and the vigorish ran out. Sure, a few of us had survived with our scalps intact but by now the industry was teetering and BEA had become a mere shadow play, run by puppets too tired to go out on the road, parked in New York's Javits Center, a cavernous hall filled with daft nostalgia and moldy dreams, surely not a place to hoist a platform for the future.

The rain had set a lot of people's teeth on edge. At least we were getting dry. Keith was the young turk among the three of us, still raising hell on the West Coast, unafraid to shout down panelists when they said something stupid, and unapologetic over his love for printed books. He also had the rental car. He downed his G & T in a couple of swigs and stood up. "Listen, guys, I gotta go out to the airport to pick up Clay. I'll catch you later." Matty and I gave him the high sign. Then we sat back and surveyed the room, letting an enervated exhaustion overtake us between sips of wine, the kind that grips relatives-by-marriage at a family pig-roast. It had been a good long marriage, the one between us and the book industry. We got up in the morning and went to work, came home at night and read. We made a living, first in retail bookselling then in publishing. The work supported families, homes, cars, vacations, and a certain status at neighborhood gatherings -- just intellectual enough so we could hold our own with the lawyers and rabbis, just commercial enough so we could talk trash with the accountants and agents. And now here we were, in the maelstrom of South By Southwest, looking for some affirming sign that we hadn't wasted our time all those years. An image of a decrepit Ponce de Leon hacking his way through a teeming swamp in search of the magic fountain popped into my head. It was obvious there were riches here -- not the technology, although the technology was damned impressive, especially for old-timers like Matty and me who had grown up with rotary phones. No, it was these people who were the true treasure -- these bright young people, filled with boundless energy and grand ideas, ready to take on Big Government, Big Business, and a host of other Big Bad Gatekeepers in their quest for a redefinition of The Good Life. And because we hadn't yet given up that search ourselves, the two of us, grizzled vets of the book biz wars, could sit in that bar, authentically happy to be there, and maintain our middle-aged dignity. We had more to learn than to teach but we knew it and it didn't bother us.

The Pinot Noir that the zombie had poured was thin and sour but we polished it off anyway as waves of conversation rippled across the room. A serious young woman sat down and started talking about her job at AT&T in Dallas, and how much easier it was to travel from Dallas than from San Antonio where the company had been headquartered, while two sloppy guys vied over the outlet, each plugging in for ten minutes of recharging time. One of them almost handed Matty's iPhone off to a stranger. "Sorry, man, made a mistake. Didn't mean to." It was about time to go meet up with a group of friends at The Cedar Door and who knew where else beyond that. Fish tacos and Shiner Bock. I thought to myself, they're not the only things New York can't satisfy my craving for. Matty and I collected our gear and started walking toward 2nd Street. We knew we were gonna get wet but we didn't mind. In fact, sometimes it still felt good getting wet.

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